Published: 19/01/2023
Category: Work Health and Safety
Published: 19/01/2023
Category: Work Health and Safety

Severe and extreme heatwaves have claimed more lives than any other natural disaster in Australia. The risk of future heatwaves only grows more intense and frequent as the effects of climate change worsen, posing increased risks to our country’s most vulnerable. 

The impacts of extreme temperatures are deadly. Between 2006 and 2017, research suggests the number of heat-related deaths was up to 36,000. 

In January 2019, Australia experienced the hottest-ever month on record. Within 90 days across the 2018/19 period, over 206 records were broken nationwide including the highest summer temperature and lowest summer total rainfall.  

As experts predict, this new era of climate-fuelled disasters carries severe consequences for disaster and emergency management in Australia. 

This is why it’s important to know how to keep yourself safe during a heatwave, your rights at work and what additional support is available. 

What is a Heatwave?

It helps for you to know the difference between hot weather and heatwaves so you can better prepare yourself for when the next heatwave strikes. 

According to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), a heatwave occurs when the maximum and minimum temperatures are unusually hot over a three-day period at a location. 

But it takes more than just a high daily maximum temperature to define a heatwave. It’s also about how much it cools down overnight. For example, if the temperature stays high overnight, the maximum will be reached the following day and will last longer, making it harder to recover and putting more stress on the body. 

Heatwaves are classified into three types, based on intensity: 

  • Low-intensity heatwaves: more frequent during summer and lower risk. 
  • Severe heatwaves: less frequent but more challenging for vulnerable people such as the elderly, pregnant women and young children. 
  • Extreme heatwaves: rare but very risky for people who don’t take precautions to keep cool, regardless if they’re healthy. 

With varying impact, it’s important to keep you and those around you safe. It’s a prime example of community care beyond the workplace, and here are some tips on how to help:  

  • Check in on vulnerable friends, family and others  
  • Make sure everyone drinks plenty of water  
  • Help out with errands for family, friends and neighbours susceptible to heat (e.g. people aged over 65; pregnant women)  
  • Seek medical help if you observe heat-related symptoms.

Responsibility in the Workplace

First and foremost, it is the primary responsibility of: 

  • the employer or  
  • person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU)  

to protect workers’ health and safety, and this involves monitoring the risks of heatwaves and natural disasters. 

While the BOM issues heatwave warnings to each state and territory, your employer or PCBU is still obligated to monitor conditions, conduct risk assessments and have adequate plans in place to protect the safety of all their workers. They’re also expected to effectively communicate plans with the broader company. 

Being prepared is the best chance at limiting the potential damage caused by a heatwave, and reducing the impact it has on day-to-day operations and the safety of employees. 

Heatwaves can affect outdoor and indoor works in different ways. It can impact both your commute and your place of work. 

If you’re an outdoor worker, your employer is responsible to supply appropriate protective clothing, sunscreen, hats and cool drinks, as well as provide air-conditioned rest rooms, air-circulating fans, shade cloths or any other measures to ensure your safety.

In some cases, your employer may cancel or reschedule certain work tasks until conditions are cooler. If work cannot be rescheduled or artificial cooling provided, then a regime of rest breaks in cool areas with cool drinks is essential.

If you’re an indoor worker, you can also be impacted by heatwaves due to a poorly cooled worksite or living space (if you work from home). Even if it’s your own home, your employer still needs to make sure you are safe. This may mean making somewhere cooler available or supplying air-circulating fans.  

Despite the increase in natural disasters over recent years, we know that in reality not all employers have plans in place to protect employees from extreme weather events. This lack of preparation from your employer can be daunting, especially if you are in higher-risk jobs or disaster-prone areas.

Climate change heightens need for stronger preparation

At the ground level, if you are concerned that your employer doesn’t have a solid plan in place for when disaster strikes, you or your Health and Safety Representative (HSR) — a person elected by you and your co-workers to represent you on health and safety issues — can raise workers’ concerns directly with them.  

If your employer fails to respond adequately, the HSR can then issue a Provisional Improvement Notice (PIN) — a written notice that requires the employer to address the health and safety matter that violates the Work Health and Safety Act. This ability is unique to HSRs who have the legal power to do so. 

Additionally, the HSR has the right to direct what is called a ‘cease work’ if there is an immediate or imminent risk to health and safety. In this case, work stops because it’s too dangerous to continue. Your employer can still ask you to do other suitable duties – but only if it’s safe to do so. 

If you’re overwhelmed or unsure of what you should do next, contact your union.

When you have tough questions you need answered, your union is the first source of information about your rights at work. This is what union members do – day in, day out – so you can trust your union to give you the right information at the right time. 

Stay safe at work

Cover photo credit: Verina Waldner on Unsplash

How to deal with heatwaves at work

How to deal with heatwaves at work